Q. Discuss the causes of Reformation in Europe. Also throw light on the role of Martin Luther in it. [BPSC, 2007]

Q. Discuss the causes of Reformation in Europe. Also throw light on the role of Martin Luther in it. [BPSC, 2007]

The Reformation could be described as a religious movement that was directed against the Church of Rome. It involved a revolt against the authority and principles of the Christian Church in Rome with the Pope as its head. The Reformation was also a rebellion against the corruption and abuses in the Church, monasticism, Church rituals and sacraments as well as interference of the Pope in temporal affairs. Those going against the Pope were called ’Protestants’ while those continuing their allegiance to him, were referred to as ’Roman Catholics’.


Political Causes:

Before the 16th century the church was religious and political body. It had its organisation in all states. Pope and clergy were independent from the government. They could not be tried in state courts. Clergy had no civil duties, but could enforce spiritual matters on all. In those days, the Holy Roman Emperor was the head of kings. Other Kings were below him.

But in 16th century we find that kings were increasing their power. Monarchs in UK, Spain and France, tried to be free from church interference. They regarded Pope as a foreigner and opposed his authority. It was the rise of national states. Kings dreamt of being autocrats, and increased their wealth and prestige. In fact, since 13th century there were frictions between the church and the states. There was a conflict between UK and France and Pope Boniface VIII, over the right to tax church property, which was exempted. The Pope declared that if a king taxed the church he would be excommunicated. But the Pope lost the battle and kings taxed the church. The Babylonian captivity 1309-1377, is an example when national governments challenged Pope’s intervention. The Papacy lost its prestige, when three Popes were elected instead of one.

Economic Causes:

Europe had an agricultural economy till the 12th century. But since then we find a change. This was due to rise in trade and communication. Urbanisation followed. This led to a rise in capitalism. Germany became the leader of capitalist world. In 16th century there was a growth of towns, trades and crafts. With the discovery of new routes, merchants sent goods to various parts of the world. As a result they accumulated wealth. Besides, trade, Germany also had mining and metal industries. All this led to rise in education and learning.

Commercial activities and education made people practical. They questioned about the wealth of the church. They wanted to use church property for noble causes. At the same time, kings also tried to confiscate church property. The new business and learned classes were willing to support politicians, in their struggle with religion.

Spirit of Renaissance:

Renaissance led to a revival of learning. Art and literature contributed in broadening the attitude of people. Before renaissance people never questioned the church. They were afraid of the clergy, because, it had the means and powers to punish people. But the renaissance saw as upsurge of the spirit of humanism. People wanted to question everything, that was kept a taboo. Earlier, also, clergy led a corrupt life, but Few asked. In the 16th century the spirit of rationalism could not suppress the inquiring mind. Many scandals were exposed at that time. Renaissance brought in a study of ancient languages like Greek and Hebrew. People could read Holy Scriptures. They understood that Christianity had changed a lot. Evils had entered the Christianity in the middle ages.

Religious causes:

The authority of the church was accepted as the final. It was called sacred, because it was founded by Christ. By the 16th century the church became absolute and uncompromising. The clergy, were not educated. They were unaware of true religion.

The head of the Christian world was the Pope. He was elected for Life by cardinals, from churches in Rome. Besides there were clerks, lawyers and officers. Together they were called papal court or papacy. By renaissance the papacy was regenerating. Many popes indulged in the immorality. Nepotism was another evil of those days. For ages Italians noble families were favoured. Popes showered benefits on these families. Many European kings objected to the luxurious life the Pope led.

Naturally, the Bishops and other people in church also enjoyed life. They neglected their duties. They did not even stay in monasteries. Some involved in politics. They amassed huge wealth, and lived in comfort. To obtain more money, they sold important positions in the church. There were many financial scams in those days.

Indulgences, were means to salvation. If a person did a sin and was sorry, he could buy an indulgence, to be free of the sin. The Pope claimed that the right to grant indulgence, was given by Christ to St. Peter, the first Pope. To get an indulgence the person had to say prayers, visit the church or do same good deed. At the time of Luther good work meant paying funds to rebuild St. Peters church at Rome. Besides, the money also was used for increasing the dignity of the church authorities. Luther was specially against the practice of selling indulgences.

Attack by Priests:

When Alibi genses opposed church practices, they were suppressed. In the 14th century John Wycliff of UK rebelled against the Pope, by calling him antichristian, evil, ineffective. He said that a Christian should consider the Bible as the only guide. He translated it into English. Followers of Wycliff increased in UK. They were called Lollords. Wycliff was excommunicated. He died in 1383.

John Huss followed Wycliff, in his state Bohemia. He became very popular, so the Pope excommunicated him. He burnt the Papal bull or order. He was called to Constance Switzerland and burnt alive.

Erasmus was a Dutch priest. In his ‘Praise of Folly’, he exposed the immoral and corrupt practices of the church and the Pope. This book decreased the hold of papacy on peoples’ mind. Erasmus, attacked superstitions. He hated open revolt. He did not want to separate from the church. What he wanted, was a reformed church, without evils.

Albigenses and Waldeness were societies of people who opposed religious dogmas. They all were persecuted. Luther, Calvin and Zwinglis’is writings were influential. They laid the foundation of the Protestant movement.


Martin Luther was born in 1483, to a German peasant of Saxony. He went to nearby schools. In 1501 he registered to the University of Erfurt. He then studied law, but he was inclined towards the study of theology. He decided to become a priest. He entered the monastery of Augustinian monks at Erfurt. He was sent to Wittenburg for delivering lectures in theology.

He went to Rome in 1510. He was disillusioned to see the level of corruption in the papacy. He developed a dislike to Italian practices. He returned and carried his research and got his doctorate in 1512. He was appointed Chairman of Biblical study at Wittenburg.

Luther and the issue of Indulgences:

It was the first controversy that he got involved in. It was a common practice to grant pardon by taking money. Indulgence had became the major financial income of the Papacy. Amanagement house called Fuggers looked after the system. Luther marked that the Pope was rich enough to rebuild the church. It was wrong to collect public money. Luther was angry, because according to him, redemption was by acts of goodness and clear thoughts and not by buying pardon.

95 Thesis – 1518:

Luther wrote his objection in the form 95 Thesis. On October 31, All Saints Eve, he nailed the thesis to the door of Castle Church at Wittenberg. He challenged the indulgences. Secondly, he wrote that his ideas were to be discussed as it was a public call. 95 Thesis were translated into German. Due to printing press, they were printed, so they reached a large audience. He sent it to his superior, who further sent a copy to Rome.

Initially the Pope did not intervene, but the head of Dominican Order, issued instructions that Luther should not be allowed to preach. However, he got political support from the ruler of Saxony. In 1518, he was called at Augsburg to discuss, with Dominican head. He was told to be silent in future, but Luther argued. In 1519 Luther had a debate with John Eck, a theologian, Luther said that he believed in direct relation with God, without the mediation of the church. He denied the Supremacy of the Pope.

Luther brought out several articles and books, where he challenged the church and the priests. He laid down the basis of a new theology. He cut down 4 of the 7 sacraments. In the end of the year, he broke church laws and orders.

Luther’s Excommunication:

It was too much of a revolt to tolerate. Pope Leo X excommunicated Luther in 1521. Luther publicly burnt the Papal Bull or Order. In April 1521 he was called by Charles V Holy Roman Emperor to a diet or council. It was attended by princes, nobles, clergy. This diet of Worms asked him, if he was sorry and wanted to renounce his writings. He was not ready. He had to flee because the diet accused him as an outlaw. King Fredrick gave him protection and so he stayed in Wittenburg.

Luther translated the New Testament and then the whole Bible, in German. His Bible became as effective weapon, in Reformation and the infallibility of the church. Wittenburg became a centre of the reformation movement. However Luther lacked the force to lead revolutionary tendencies. His friend Carlstadt, helped him by attacking clerical celibacy, and demanding compulsory marriages for secular priests.

Peasants’ Revolt:

Peasants in Germany got influenced by his writings. Peasants had suffered due to tax burdens and exploitation by the Kings and Clergy. When he preached the doctrine of equality of all men before God, the peasants interpreted the words for their convenience. In 1524, they rebelled. They demanded abolition of serfdom, free rights of fishings and hunting and abolition of arbitrary punishments. Luther was sympathetic till they were against the church. But soon, the revolt, spread all over Germany. Peasants targeted landlords and nobles. They appealed to Luther. He urged them to be peaceful, but they did not. So he told nobles to suppress the revolt. It was severely put down. Some 50,000 peasants were killed. Luther immediately became unpopular in South Germany.

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